Showing posts with label Educational reform. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Educational reform. Show all posts

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Why Standards-Based Teaching Has Failed to Raise Reading Achievement

          Standards-based educational reform goes back to the early 1990s. Since then, test scores have see-sawed a bit, but for the most part we are doing about as well as we’ve been doing since 1970 (when we first started collecting national reading data).

            That means standards-based reform has not led to higher achievement. Establishing educational goals and aligning teaching to those goals to ensure kids succeed has not happened.

            Diane Ravitch, and others who don’t spend much time in schools, claim to know why standards have failed. They believe that if teachers were just left to their own devices, American kids would excel in school.

            Unlike them, I’ve spent much time in classrooms and working with kids over the past four decades or so…as teacher, lunch room supervisor, park supervisor, student teacher, tutor, researcher, remediator, teacher educator, observer, evaluator, school administrator, textbook author, test designer, parent, grandparent, and uncle.

            My take on the problem is different, but I do agree that it is a problem.

            I have come to believe that standards-based reform will NEVER work unless educators come to understand the idea of standards-based teaching, something that has not happened during the past 25 years.

            To illustrate my point, I received the following two notes from teachers last week:

I teach 4th grade in a Daily 5/Cafe school. We have NO curriculum or requirements other than... 2 mini lessons, conferring individually and maintaining strategy groups with students. Do you have any advice or thoughts on the organizing and planning within these four areas? 

I am working on a district committee that is developing a universal literacy framework for our elementary schools. One of the recommended components is shared reading, which is not currently a formalized daily practice at our highest-achieving schools. Is there an argument, based on research, for this component to be mandated for all classrooms as part of an excellent literacy program? The research that I have found seems to mainly focus on pre-schoolers. 

            What sense do I make of these queries? They reveal that their schools are dedicated to promoting particular activities and practices—not to teaching children. There are particular activities these principals and teachers want to see in classrooms, and they are not particular focused on what they are supposed to be engaged in: teaching children to read.

            Instead of focusing like-a-laser on what they want kids to know, to be able to do, to be, they are promoting favorite classroom activities. Instead of thinking about how to get kids to a particular outcome, they are wondering if they can somehow align the required activities with useful outcomes. It would be like a surgeon deciding what kind of surgery he wanted to conduct and then hoping to stretch it to the patient’s needs (“Sorry Mr. Jones. I know you have prostate cancer, but I like to do hysterectomies.”)

            Until we actually focus on teaching the standards—that is, until we decide that our job is to ensure that kids learn what we have agreed to teach them—then it will continue to look like our kids are failing. (And, no, “test prep” is not teaching to our standards, it is just one more example of educators focusing on particular activities rather than on reaching particular outcomes).

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Common Core and the Fog of Education Policy

Recently, I made a presentation for the Reading Hall of Fame at the Literacy Research Association meetings in San Diego. My basic contention is that policymakers have failed to recognize the magnitude of the changes required by the Common Core State Standards in terms of English language arts instruction. Because of this failure, they are neither moving fast enough or seriously enough to ensure that schools successfully and effectively adopt the standards.

In the past, perhaps, that different states had different educational goals militated against any kind of joint response to students' educational needs. Now, with common standards in place, states could more powerfully pool their talent and resources to enhance their response. The only areas this has been happening so far have been in the writing of the standards themselves and in the development of new tests--both of which were "easy" for the states because these efforts were paid for and orchestrated by someone other than the state departments of education. Now we need this kind of sharing in areas like professional development for teachers and principals, curriculum materials selection, public information, and so on... but nary a joint initiative in sight. Instead, leaders seem foggy about the impending changes or dedicated to business as usual.

If you are interested in this topic, here is the powerpoint:

Friday, May 1, 2009

Reforming NCLB: What to Keep

The next version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is going to be quite different from “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB). That’s both good since real changes are needed, but it’s a little scary, too, because NCLB represented a remarkable and positive break with past federal education policy.

A quick pre-2000 history lesson: At the federal level, Republican and Democratic views of education had evolved into an unfortunate stalemate. Republicans usually opposed federal education spending for Constitutional and budgetary reasons. Their argument was that education was the responsibility of the states, and that Uncle Sam should keep his cotton-picking fingers off of local schools. That approach often meant that the Republican answer to educational programs was no, but it also meant that they worked hard to protect local control, to ensure that federal educational initiatives didn’t get very specific about curriculum, teacher preparation, or assessment, and that there could be nothing like national standards.

The Democrats, on the other hand, have been very pro-education spending. They Democrats have usually pushed for increased funding for Head Start, Title I, IDEA, and so on.

Sounds like the donkeys and the elephants’ positions were pretty antithetical. But that really wasn’t the case. The Democrats, despite their support for education dollars, were not particularly committed to trying to improve education. That’s why they weren’t worried about the constitutional problems: Democrats didn’t seek to fix schools as much as to use schools as a reason for moving federal bucks to local communities and to increase educational opportunity (more slots and more stuff), but within the existing universe of education.

What that meant until 2000 was that the Democrats and Republicans “conspired” to make sure that federal dollars wouldn’t affect educational quality. NCLB was remarkable because it broke that stalemate and increased funding towards improving educational quality. I might not agree with all of the NCLB specifics, but I strongly support the principle.

Back in the 1940s when the GI bill paid tuitions for soldiers to go to college, the quality of the colleges was not the issue (just the access). In the 1960s, when Head Start was set up, the idea was to get kids from low-income families into preschools and to provide them with meals and health care, and the assumption was that any preschool would be okay. The problem, in 2009, is that increasing access is insufficient. Making sure that more African American boys have the money to go to college is great idea, except that most will flunk out during freshman year because of their inadequate elementary and high school preparation.

Change NCLB by all means, but keep trying to use that federal increment to boost quality and effectiveness. Candidate Obama campaigned on increasing educational access. Let’s hope that President Obama changes that emphasis to trying to increase quality, too. Our kids need to read better than they do now; more access alone won’t solve that.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Primer for Policy Makers

These are sure tough money times. The credit markets are frozen harder than the Chicago River right now. States are scrambling to cut billions from their current education budgets. It isn't clear how much will be lost yet, but schools are about to go through a time of shrinking resources like we've never seen during any of our careers.

Despite these problems, some policymakers are doing their best to preserve literacy programming and to make sure that the great efforts of the past several years are not entirely lost. Just last week I was invited to Florida to speak with a group of school superintendents, legislators, and other leaders. My job was to sketch out what was essential and needed to be preserved (even if cut back), and what could be done to make sure as much support was maintained as possible.

The responses have been great, so here is a copy of the powerpoint that I used to make the presentation.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Open Letter to Secretary Education Designate Arne Duncan


Congratulations on your recent well-deserved appointment. Your success as Superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools depended greatly on improving achievement. Secretaries of Education aren’t usually held responsible for such gains, but maybe they should be. Given your competitive spirit, why not hold yourself to that standard anyway.

So what steps can a Secretary of Education take in this regard? I can think of several.

1. Your boss campaigned on the idea of doubling federal support for preschool education. That’s $10 billion in new funding. The Secretary of Education can require that the curricula for such programs be consistent with the forthcoming National Early Literacy Panel report (it is to be released in Washington, DC on January 8).

2. Reading First should be renewed and reformed, too. As you know, the nation invested $5 billion trying to improve primary grade literacy. The program was wracked with problems, but much was learned. This is a good time to double down (Congressional support is likely to be there if you do), and renew and reform that effort. It can be made to work and it should be made to work.

3. Another area where your boss wants to invest is in STEM programs (science, technology, engineering, and math). Given the great needs in those areas, this is not hard to support. But don’t lose sight of the fact that reading is a cornerstone of success in STEM. Require that STEM efforts address students’ abilities to read science, math, and technology, and you’ll go a long way toward success.

4. President George W. Bush invested in the reading improvement of young children. Don’t just continue these efforts but extend them up the grades. America can no longer afford to teach reading in the elementary schools and to ignore it after that. Support Striving Readers and other programmatic efforts to ensure that adolescent literacy improves (this will be critical if President Obama’s ideas of expanding access to colleges is going to work).

5. U.S. literacy needs are closely linked to the progress of English learners. The Obama education plan calls for doubling the investment in educational research. What a great opportunity to figure out the most effective way to enable immigrant children to succeed in U.S. schools. Earmark a big chunk of that new research money for figuring out how we can teach literacy more effectively to these kids—and pledge to follow the results of that research in federal policy.

6. Don’t forget the adults either. There is a need for increased emphasis and coordination of educational efforts for adults who don’t have adequate literacy. The federal government supports literacy programs through the Department of Education, but it also does so through Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Defense, Justice, and Labor. The states have their own patchwork of programs, too. Who is getting helped, where are we double programming, how could we coordinate services better are just a few questions that you could lead the administration to asking.

7. President Obama led efforts in the U.S. Senate to make college more affordable and available to students. What a great idea! But colleges are starting to respond to increased access by lowering literacy requirements. It is critical that any increases in funding for colleges and universities carries the requirement that students improve in literacy achievement during those years.

8. You learned a thing or two as a superintendent of a big city school district, such as how to lower educational standards to increase success. Incent states and districts to raise literacy standards—and to meet these higher standards—rather than allowing them to make themselves look better.

9. Teacher education was a thorn in your side in Chicago. You were always trying to expand the pool of teachers. It would be better if you helped upgrade the quality of teacher education and linked this to student learning. The federal government could do a lot to lead states towards teacher preparation standards that make sense in the area of literacy (and data management plans like those developed in Chicago could do a lot to make these efforts effective).

10. The National Institute for Literacy should be given an independent voice in literacy policy. During the Bush administration, NIFL couldn’t even report to Congress as required by law without approval of the Department of Education. Allow NIFL to lead on these issues and to provide information to the Congress concerning which federal efforts are working and which are not.

It’s a big agenda, but literacy is a big problem. Good luck!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Why the Obama Education Reform Won't Work

The problems that beset America since the “new millennium” had been silently growing beneath the surface for some time without adequate response. For example, we all share the memory of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, but it is important to remember that radical Islamic terrorism did not begin then. It had been growing for years. Maybe it had only seemed like a bad cold, but the 2001 attacks signaled a change in our situation. Evidently, the cold had morphed into a bad case of double pneumonia.

Similarly, our current financial crisis didn’t just blow up in October. This one had been percolating for some time, and the Secretary Treasury was scrambling to keep the lid on it. It turns out these markets had been destabilized years ago and it was just a matter of time until they toppled. The economic train only came off the tracks recently, but that train has been careening recklessly at high speed for a long time, so its recent crash should not have been so surprising.

I wonder if we haven’t been suffering from our own case of the education sniffles or if our literacy train hasn’t foolishly been picking up speed with curves ahead?

In 2000, the U.S. census together with the subsequent National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) may have been our ignored canaries in the coal mine. These reports revealed what may be the most important literacy statistics of recent times.

For the first time in U.S. educational history, increases in numbers of years of schooling have not led to gains in literacy attainment. Additional schooling seems no longer be a potent stimulant to reading achievement.

In the past, when school years lengthened from 110 days to 180, or when school enrollment became compulsory, or when schools allowed African-Americans to attend, the result has been concurrent improvements in school completion and in literacy.

Now we are accomplishing levels of educational attainment never before reached in our long history, but literacy levels remain stagnant. Average Americans earn more than a high school diploma now, but they can’t read any better than their older brothers or sisters who got by with less time in school.

Many educational reform efforts depend on the idea of increasing the amount of schooling. Think of the high school dropout prevention initiatives of groups like the Alliance for Excellent Education or the efforts to expand college access put forth by President-Elect Obama. In the past, such investments would have presaged higher literacy levels, but the problem that is being ignored is that something has changed in high school and post-high school education that has cut the effectiveness of such schooling.

What happened?

There are many possibilities, but I think the most likely is that schooling no longer requires sufficient amounts of demanding reading. The students are there, they take classes, they might even learn some information, but they don’t get stretched in reading like they once did. A couple of years ago, American College Testing reported that the best predictor of post-high school success was the amount of challenging reading that students engaged in their academic courses in high school.

The impending crisis is this: we will beggar ourselves trying to provide our kids with more years of education, but it will not pay off for them in terms of better economic success despite our big investment. The additional education we can buy for our children now appears to be both expensive and a pale imitation of the potent variety that we would have bought them in the past. It is not enough to expand college access or high school completion; we need to ensure that this added teaching leads to added literacy or the game won’t be worth the candle.